Becoming an Innovative Small Church: Start In the Shallow End

Start In the Shallow EndChange is hard.

Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

If I could only give one piece of advice to pastors struggling to turn a dying, unhealthy, static Small Church into a fresh, healthy, innovative one, this would be it.

Do the easy parts first.

It’s a basic principle of life that we sometimes forget in the church. You don’t start basic swim classes in the deep end of the pool. There’s too much unnecessary risk. Pools have shallow ends for a reason.

Your church has a shallow end, too.

No, I don’t know what it is, because I don’t know your church. But you know. Or you should.

If you don’t know, find out. The future of your church and your tenure as its pastor may depend on it.


How to Find the Shallow End

The shallow end is the place in a Small Church where things are easiest. Where everyone, including the pastor, feels like they have a solid footing beneath them. Where young and old, believers and seekers, innovators and traditionalists stand on even ground and can still keep their head above water.

When a church is in crisis, it may be hard to believe such a place exists. But it does.

Start looking for it by asking this question. What do all these people, despite their differences, find in common that makes them want to call this church, their home church?

That’s the shallow end. It’s the part of the church where everyone finds common ground. The reason you’re all there to begin with.


Love & Hate

Once you’ve identified your shallow end, divide what everyone holds in common into two categories: the stuff everyone loves and the stuff everyone hates.

Then strengthen the parts everyone loves and change the parts everyone hates.

The biggest mistake most pastors make when starting the turnaround process is to begin by changing the things they hate, even if everyone else loves them and wants to keep them.

Lay your opinions aside for now. You may be right about the change being needed, but even if you are, starting by getting your way at the expense of everyone else, assures an us/them mentality. Usually with the pastor sitting alone on the “us” side.

Instead, start the process by doing things that reinforce the idea that “us” means “all of us”.


Touch Bottom

Start by reminding everyone what they’re all here for. You know, the Jesus parts. The common heritage. The scriptures. The relationships – with God and each other.

Remind people that these core issues are what really matter. Assure them that any potential future changes will only be made if they strengthen those essentials, not erode them. Let them know they’ll always be able to touch the bottom, no matter how many waves are in the pool.


Make Waves Together

When a group of kids are timidly learning to swim, there’s always one older kid who thinks he knows what real fun is like, who decides to do a cannonball in the middle of the pool.

Don’t be that kid.

Don’t make your congregation feel like they’re being splashed in the face by a bully. That’s what happens when you impose your change on them before they’re ready to get their faces wet.

You may be having the time of your life, innovating to your heart’s content. But if the people getting splashed aren’t ready for it, hissy fits will be thrown, parents will be called and the bully will be thrown out of the pool, pleading “what did I do?!”

Instead, find the things everyone hates, then start making minor waves by changing them together.

Fix the squeaking door. Renovate the musty bathrooms. Replace the buzzing, flashing, yellowing fluorescent light tubes.

Once the lights have been turned on, literally and figuratively... hey, that carpet is looking really dingy, isn’t it? We’ll need to pull out the pews to re-lay the new carpet. This might be a good time to replace the pews with portable seating. We wouldn’t want to drive bolts through the nice, new carpet, right?


It’s a Start

No, it’s not that easy. Church changes never are. But it’s a start.

Enforcing what everyone loves and replacing what everyone hates isn’t easy. But it’s the least difficult way to start the process.

And if anything goes wrong, you can still touch bottom.


This post was referenced on Click here to read Todd’s take on it.


So what do you think? Do you have any beginning turnaround experiences others can benefit from?

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(Swim photo from Rolfe Kolbe • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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5 thoughts on “Becoming an Innovative Small Church: Start In the Shallow End”

  1. Again, your timing is impeccable on this…duh! cause it’s God’s timing!
    Not that things are really broken, just that they need a fresher perspective from more eyes.
    And God has been prompting me to do the things you posted here, looking forward to the rest of this weeks posts!
    Thanks again!

      1. I inherited the church I pastor from my Late Husband ( Ray Headden ). He and I founded the church starting in an old House we rented and renovated. Then later bought Land in a very small town, built a church there with the help of a few friends. In the meantime, God called me to preach. I could not understand since I was married to a very good preacher. I did not know that four and a half yrs. later God would call him Home. The church building did not hold up to well, but the Fellowship Hall we built did. We had church there for about 6 yrs. then was able to build a Brand new Building. March of this yr. (2013 ) I will have been the Pastor for 22 yrs. The Numerical growth is up and Down ,but the Spiritual Growth keep’s climbing for the committed one’s, and that is making others desire to grow. I will be 73yr’s old in March, slowing down, but have Trained a Young Man to take my Place, whenever God say’s it is time to step down.

  2. What if your small church is stagnant because the things they love and hate are unhealthy? What if your church loves itself and the social fellowship of familiar faces and doesn’t like the thought of changing things. What if it is in love with the past and has no appetite for a future which looks different? An inward focused church is going to have loves and hates, but that can’t be a good foundation to build off of is it?

    1. Good point, Steve. Obviously, not every blog post can take all possible ramifications into account. But you’ll be happy to know I expanded on this idea in a later blog post, entitled “Expanding the Sweet Spot for a Healthy Church Turnaround.”

      In that post, I point out the dangers you mentioned. Using a Venn diagram, I show that we need to start in the sweet spot where God’s heart, the pastors’ heart and the congregation’s heart meet. Then I encourage the pastor to move into the spot where the church’s heart and God’s heart meet, letting the Lord and the church pull him/her along. I also encourage pastors and churches to avoid what I call the “Danger Zone”, which is the spot you’ve described where the pastor’s heart and the congregation’s heart meet, but they’re missing out on God’s heart.

      Here’s the link to that post if you’d like to read it.

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